Fracking in the George Washington National Forest: An Unnecessary Risk

Statement of Partnership for Policy Integrity Senior Counsel, Dusty Horwitt:

The Obama administration took an unnecessary risk with drinking water supplies today by allowing horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing in a portion of the George Washington National Forest.  While the Forest Service decision deserves some credit for placing most of the forest off-limits to drilling, there’s no reason to gamble with the rest.  Every major water provider in the DC area located downstream from the forest has opposed such drilling until science can show that it can be done safely.  Local governments and elected officials have taken similar positions, including the Arlington County Board, Falls Church City Council and Alexandria’s mayor in Virginia; Montgomery County Council and Prince George’s County Council in Maryland; Washington, DC’s mayor and city council, several jurisdictions near the forest, and Virginia’s Governor, Terry McAuliffe.  The Forest Service itself identified serious risks of drilling in its decision as it did in a 2011 draft in which officials recommended a moratorium on horizontal drilling and fracking in the forest.

Yet to protect the public on lands that could be drilled and fracked, the Forest Service relies on a dubious combination of government oversight and the assumption that the industry is not currently interested in drilling in the forest.  A recent GAO study documented that government oversight of drilling on federal lands has been poor, finding that between 2009 and 2012, the federal Bureau of Land Management failed to inspect more than 2,100 of 3,700 wells (57 percent) drilled on federal land that the BLM, itself, had designated as high risks for water pollution or other environmental harm.  The BLM would be one of the major regulators of fracking in the George Washington forest, if it occurs.  And while the drilling industry might not have much interest in drilling now with historically low natural gas prices, what happens when prices inevitably rise?  With risks ranging from leaks and spills of radioactive wastewater to the use of secret and often toxic fracking chemicals, why roll the dice with drinking water supplies and the forest itself?

Partnership for Policy Integrity